The Sign of the Ram

As I was watching The Sign of the Ram (1948) I found myself idly wondering  – and I seem to have a great deal of time for idleness these days – about a number of things, perhaps the least significant of which was a growing curiosity about how many noir melodramas involved grand old houses perched precariously atop dramatic cliffs with boiling seas below. Sitting and admiring the atmospheric matte paintings in the background, I had  hunch there must be lots, but I think now that’s probably an exaggeration on my part. Whatever the number might actually be, it won’t alter the fact that this is a fine setting for a movie, the drama and violence of nature vying for attention with the emotional tempests raging within the quasi-Gothic old pile that houses a host of troubled souls.

Nothing is quite as it seems. Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) arrives to take up her new position as secretary to poet Leah St Aubyn (Susan Peters), who is confined to a wheelchair. Her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) is devoted to her and it’s quickly apparent that everyone in the house, all the children of Mallory’s first marriage, shares these sentiments. On the surface, it looks as though the sweetness and stoic rejection of self-pity on Leah’s part are the inspiration for this. Yet that’s not the case at all; Leah’s disability is the result of her rescuing the younger St Aubyn members during a storm off the coast, a heroically altruistic act which saw her cast upon the rocks and her body broken. Bit by bit, it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s an implicit, unspoken sense of guilt at the back of it all, a tacit acceptance that the lives snatched back from the grasp of the sea represent a debt that is hard to repay. In a savage twist on that old belief that saving a life leaves a person responsible for that life in the future, it is gradually revealed that Leah has manipulated her family’s gratitude into a corrosive form of guilt. And all the while the ocean booms against the Cornish rocks, biding its time till the payment it’s due can be collected.

 

Personally speaking, John Sturges isn’t the first name I’d think of were I asked to name a potential director of a film noir with a strong flavoring of Gothic melodrama. Of course Sturges, like all contract directors in the studio era, worked across a range of genres and was no stranger to film noir – Mystery Street, Jeopardy & The People Against O’Hara comprising a few. Nevertheless, I tend to think of westerns, and as to a lesser extent, war movies when he’s spoken of. He had a terrific eye for composition and the way the framing of a shot could be used to the greatest advantage. This would become ever more apparent in the future when he embraced and fully exploited the potential of the wide screen, and he knew how to place his actors on location too. The Sign of the Ram is set bound though and shot in Academy ratio so it could be said that it wasn’t playing to his strengths. While that may be true to some extent, he does take full advantage of what opportunities are afforded and, aided immensely by the masterly cinematography of Burnett Guffey, shoots from below an above to alter the mood and adds frames within frames to narrow the focus and fasten the viewers’ attention.

Looked at from the perspective of 2020, The Sign of the Ram doesn’t feature a cast full of the kind of names that are going to be immediately recognizable. Despite that relative unfamiliarity, it would be fair to say the film boasts an interesting lineup. The leading lady and prime mover of the whole piece is Susan Peters, and hers is a fascinating and tragic tale. With her star on the rise and only a year or so into her marriage to actor and future director Richard Quine, she was the victim of a hunting accident when a discarded gun discharged and the resultant wound left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was just 23 years old then and she would pass away at the age of 31. This film was to be her comeback and she is fine in her role, carefully hiding her true feelings from those around and only offering hints to her dissatisfaction in her private moments and through her constant chain-smoking. All told, it’s an excellent study of the consequences of manipulation driven by fear.

Alexander Knox is likely to be the best known face on the screen, his long and varied career highlighting his versatility – something I noted before when looking at his excellent work in an unfamiliar western setting in Man in the Saddle – and he gets across the decency of his character in a most believable fashion here. Phyllis Thaxter looks set to enjoy a more dynamic role as the new secretary, a point of view figure for the audience to identify with, but she seems to gradually drift towards the sidelines as the story unfolds. Peggy Ann Garner gets the showier part as the younger daughter in the family while Allene Roberts and Ross Ford are both perfectly acceptable as her siblings. Diana Douglas (the wife of Kirk Douglas at the time) comes more into the spotlight in the latter stages and there’s solid support from Dame May Whitty and Ron Randell.

The Sign of the Ram is a Columbia picture and, as far as I’m aware, has not enjoyed a release on disc anywhere. However, it can be tracked down for online viewing. I guess the lack of big name stars in the cast may have led to this movie being neglected. In addition, I sometimes think that Sturges work overall has not been had the critical attention much of it deserves. Perhaps his move into big budget, popular movies through the 1960s and then the variable quality of his later work is the reason. Whatever the reason, he’s highly rated on this site and I feel this film from early in his career is at least worth a look.

29 thoughts on “The Sign of the Ram

  1. Colin
    Have not seen SIGN OF THE RAM though I do know of it. Have heard good things about it from others I know from various noir sites. Needless to say your write-up has me moving it up the must watch list. Just before the new year, I caught Miss Peters in ‘Assignment in Brittany” (1943). It is a watchable wartime flag-waver with Peters second billed after, Jean-Pierre Aumont.

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Not a film I was aware of. On Sturges I associate him with strong male casts and by extension like you the western. Nice to see these rarer titles getting some love which is something I love to do as well. Stay healthy my friend.

    Like

    • Thanks, and the same to you and yours, Mike.

      Yes, it’s not at all the kind of movie I’d have associated with Sturges. Mind you, despite the seemingly uncharacteristic setting and subject as well as it early placement in his career, his direction is as smooth and proficient as one would expect. It’s nice to be able to highlight this type of movie.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Susan Peters made an enormous success playing opposite Ronald Colman and Greer Garson in Random Harvest; one of the great romantic films of the forties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I understand, or I should say I have read, that it was her breakout role. While I know that movie was highly acclaimed, for some reason I have never managed to catch up with it – one of those gaps or omissions in my viewing.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed. I think deliveries are more regular in the UK at the moment, Jerry. Nothing bigger than letters come to my apartment building though and I really don’t fancy a trip to the central sorting office to pick stuff up these days. I can wait. Sometimes anticipation is almost the equal of temptation.

      Like

  4. The only mail getting to my building are advert flyers it seems. Which is somewhat funny as they are all for stores and events that have all been closed or cancelled.

    Like

  5. Well folks, what films are up for the weekend? I am just about to start off with that great “eastern” YOJIMBO, which of course was turned into the “western” A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. I will then pick a couple more out of, ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS 1958, BEWITCHED 1945, RAILS INTO LARAMIE 1954, REVOLT AT FORT LARAMIE 1957, STRAY DOG 1949. I’ll also be working in some tv series I have recorded over the last week or two.
    All the best to all and stay healthy.

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots stuff there that’s new to me, Gord.
      Personally, I have a fair bit of online work that ought to be cleared up this weekend so I’m not sure how much time, or appetite for that matter, I’ll end up having. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Crime Doctor movies of late so I’ll probably make a few more inroads there.

      Like

  6. Yes, some interesting titles there from Gord that are new to me too, Colin. Hope we will hear comment after viewing…..
    Those “Crime Doctor” movies are rather good, aren’t they? I also rather like Peter Lorre’s MR. MOTO series of films from the same period.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Lorre was very enjoyable in that role.

      I’d had fond memories of the Crime Doctor series but hadn’t seen them for a very long time. I’ve been pleased to see them living up to expectations so far, something which isn’t always the case.

      Like

  7. Colin, Jerry.
    Never seen any of the CRIME DOCTOR films though they are on my list somewhere.. As for the MR MOTO series, I have seen the complete run. A really well-made series imo, with far better production values than I was expecting. . Lorre is great in everything he does.

    A series I also like is Columbia’s, THE WHISTLER, with Richard Dix. Quick and to the point programmers.

    Gord

    Like

  8. I think its the beauty of that heightened Movie Universe we love watching onscreen- magnificently larger-than-life moody vistas of enigmatic grand houses on cliffs or hills. The opening of Citizen Kane remains one of the most bewitching openings I can remember, so atmospheric. Its just music and images but you just KNOW that you are entering into Grand Mystery, and I remember falling hopelessly in love with that film in just those first moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s a nice way to express it, and a good example too in Kane. There is something about that moody make-believe romanticism that can only really be found in movies, and once you’ve been bitten by that particular bug I reckon you’re hooked for good.

      Like

  9. Just a question for everyone. Have any of you heard of MISS ROBIN CRUSOE 1954. It is running on TCM here later this month. It stars Amanda Blake and George Nader. I must admit it is a new one for me. Some sort of low budget adventure I would guess. Amanda Blake was a fixture on tv at our home during the 50’s and 60’s as a member of the long running GUNSMOKE tv series.

    Gord

    Like

  10. I have not seen “Sign of the Ram” but last night I watched, “By Love Possessed”, another film by John Sturges that would be considered an outlier in his body of work. This is a pure sudser with Lana Turner, Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Jason Robards Jr, Barbara Bel Geddes, Thomas Mitchell, Susan Kohner, Everett Sloane, and Victoria Craig as perhaps the nuttiest nymph ever portrayed in a movie. What “possessed” me to watch this soap opera I’ll never know. Perhaps it was the on-location scenes filmed in central Massachusetts or maybe it was the fact that Sturges directed it. It seems that all is not well beneath the perfect world of Yankee Blue-Blood lawyers and their families – unhappy marriages, alcoholism, adultery, sexual impotence, depression, embezzlement, and suicide. There is a lack of “storms” in people’s lives that’s symbolized by the local body of water named “Still Pond”. Not to worry though. Except for the poor suicide, everyone finds themselves in the end, marriages are instantaneously healed at the last moment, father and son finally bond, and the spirit of compassion triumphs over the rigid letter of the law. Elmer Bernstein’s score is marked by florid Rachmaninoff piano flourishes. One has to think that he was just having fun scoring the soapy material he was given. Excluding the fact that these lawyers are filthy rich, I guess the best way to describe this movie is to call it a poor man’s “Peyton Place”. As Blake Lucas has pointed out, Delmar Daves moved from serious Westerns to Troy Donahue movies that, upon later reflection, were underrated. Unfortunately, I don’t think Sturges and “By Loved Possessed” will enjoy this same reassessment.

    Like

    • I don’t know whether you intended to or not, Frank, but the fact is you’ve piqued my interest in this. I’ve not seen it and I can see you’re not that enthused about it but that cast, the director and the composer, not to mention the fact I’m partial to even overripe material like this on occasion, has got me curious. This seems to have been made when Lana Turner had just come off a very solid run of work.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I was only going to watch a few minutes on Amazon Prime and wound up watching the whole thing — I said to my wife, “What’s happening to me?” The other night I watched “Son of Dracula” which is neither one of Robert Siodmak’s or Curt Sidomak’s better efforts. Lon Chaney Jr. is ludicrous as Dracula. But It would be interesting to hear your take on “By Love Possessed”.

    I did watch “Once Upon A Time in the West” and enjoyed it. I need to reflect upon it more before writing about it, but I understand why you and others find it a superior film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Firstly, I’m pleased to hear you took something positive away from your viewing of Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone was truly a in a different class to other makers of spaghetti westerns.

      Son of Dracula really ought to be a better film. Siodmak manages a few interesting moments and there was potential in the premise. But I agree that Chaney was very poorly cast, all wrong for the role.

      I will try to source a copy of By Love Possessed though.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.